the nineties want their techno-utopia back

June 15, 2012

Professional futurist Ayesha Khanna is someone you’ve never seen called out by name on this blog, but she’s as devoted to the doctrine of techno-utopianism as any Kurzwelian and advocates the idea that not only would embracing new technology change our lives forever, but it would be almost inevitable for the better. She is very much from the other extreme I mentioned in my post about technophobes, prophesying a world in which all our experiences are both real and virtual, and we’ll find an almost spiritual connection with each other when we embrace a three-way merger between flesh, machine, and digital content. But while it may be fun to dream of harnessing the power of the web to live several simultaneous lives and retreat into a virtual world when we get overwhelmed with the physical one, the end users of the products designed to make this happen aren’t in a hurry to use them, considering the countless supposedly world-changing technologies that never managed to get traction. Why simulate the real world, they usually ask, when we can do something real instead?

Were you to browse some of the heady promises being made in the 1990s, you’d see promises of our world being completely digitized for our convenience. Groceries would be delivered right to our doors with a click of our mice, telecommuting would become the default way to work and we’d carry out our work days not in rows of gray cubicles ugly as sin, but the local coffee shop or on our couches, and brick and mortar malls would be a thing of the past, made obsolete by e-commerce. Even such basics as sex could be fulfilled with some very unique devices we could plug into a USB port, devices that Khanna describes in great detail as evidence that we’re on the verge of permanently plugging into the web for everything we need. In reality, we still go to a local market ourselves to buy food, telecommuting is not nearly as common as we’ve been told it would be since a company does need to have people in the office, shopping malls are still in business, and while online dating and hookup sites have become commonplace after having washed off their stigma of only being needed by a lonely bunch of nerds, we’re using these sites to make dating and sex easier, not as substitutes for them.

Despite the praise Khanna lavishes on all sorts of high tech sex toys, the fact of the matter is that they’re really just high tech sex toys and a surrogate for actual human interaction is a much more complicated question than what technologies are on the market today. Same thing with virtual lives. We’ve already discussed the problems of living in a virtual world, one of the main ones being our need to separate reality from fiction and dealing with the cognitive dissonances that result from these attempts. We haven’t really discussed how we’d ever be able to set up a totally immersive virtual world because the premise was purely hypothetical, but now, when we’re being told that this complete immersion is our goal, we should consider that living in a completely virtual world the way Khanna imagines will only happen with implantable computers and direct interfaces with the brain. How committed would you be to World Of Warcraft or any other immersive virtual environment if you have to undergo delicate and invasive surgery to interact with it? Until we have neurosurgery being done by an injection of self-assembling nanobots, I’m just not seeing a lot of volunteers for this degree of immersion.

Even more fundamentally, techno-utopians who breathlessly talk about how much time we spend online and how close we are to our smartphones are confusing our now habitual reliance on a communication tool with the urge to live in a completely virtual world, concepts that have little in common with each other. Instead of an all-consuming retreat into what’s happening on our computer screens, people are using social media to stay in touch with friends and organize outings, vacations, and meetups. They’re not, as many of those who simply don’t understand how this technology works or how it’s really used, substituting social media sites for all real world communication. They’re simply finding new ways to communicate and social media often presents the most convenient platform for communication. Why even bother sending e-mail when you have IM and much of what you get in your inbox nowadays are newsletters, messages from work, and whatever spam that wiggled past your filters? Why call and leave messages when you can text a short notification or ask a quick question, using your and your contacts’ time more efficiently? Granted, some people go overboard by texting and IM-ing what would better be communicated via phone or in person, but I think my point is still valid.

The bottom line is that we use the web when we find it convenient, when it helps us get things done faster, or when we want to entertain ourselves. It doesn’t follow that we’re somehow so enmeshed with our computers and social media sites or MMORPGs that we want to live in them and trade in our physical, biological lives in meat space for virtual or mechanical surrogates. Humans, by in large, don’t like to be hermits and even some of the most introverted people you’ll ever meet have real world friends with whom they like to spend time. Yes, they may not go out to a bar or a nightclub and spend quiet nights at home watching movies together, but this is still a far cry from outsourcing all contact with other humans, be it casual or sexual, to a computer. Socially, we found a way to organize our lives. Now, the goal is to digitally organize our professional lives. Beyond that, I’d posit that we’ll just be looking for more efficiency rather than wondering what it will take to permanently wire ourselves to our machines so we can live out our lives electronically, like proto-comic book supervillains who take to the virtual realm because their bodies are either unreliable or essentially obsolete…

[ illustration by Roger Dean ]

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  • Tom

    IMHO, Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End showed the best way to merge virtual and real world, it is done by contact lenses, and it is only meant to color reality, not replace it.